MARSEILLE - President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to rally his troops Sunday with a call for the French people to stand with him against a defeatist elite and to defend the traditional values of a strong France.

Trailing in the polls with barely nine weeks to go before he stands for re-election, the 57-year-old was in combative mood, despite the softening presence of his supermodel wife Carla Bruni in the first row. "I want to ask you something, here, tonight in Marseille, Help me. Help me unite the people of France. You are the people of France," he declared, as the French national anthem, named after the city in which he spoke, rang out.

Addressing 10,000 cheering and flag-waving supporters in a conference centre in the rough-and-ready southern port of Marseille, he won his biggest applause for attacks on his Socialist rivals and poll frontrunner Francois Hollande.

"We are not like them," he declared, to wild cheers from an audience of smartly dressed southern families, local officials and students from his UMP party's youth wing, chanting "Nicolas, Nicolas, Nicolas!" His campaign themes - opposition to gay marriage and immigrant voting rights, support for public spending cuts and nuclear power - already felt well-worn just four days after he declared his candidacy.

He once more called for referendums to help him push through reforms he claims would be obstructed by the Paris elite. Above all he played on fear of the debt crisis haunting Europe, insisting that only his brand of strong leadership could see France through.

"We managed to avoid catastrophe," he said. "If a single person in France doubts that, if he wants to know what we escaped, what could have happened if France wasn't strong, he should look at what happened to the Greek worker.

"Think about what's happening today to Italian pensioners. Think how the jobless feel in Spain, where unemployment is three times what it is in France. Imagine a Portuguese civil servant seeing his wages cut by a quarter.

"And look at the thousands of American families living in trailer parks because they have no work and can't pay the upkeep of a house," he said.

Novelty was provided by the presence of his 44-year-old wife in the crowd, sporting a sober yet elegant dark jacket and grey pants, and flanked by UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope and Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

"It was very moving, amazing," she declared after the speech as the couple plunged into the crowd to shake hands and greet a throng of well-wishers.

Once a fixture on the world's catwalks and the Parisian social scene, the first lady has been much more discreet since October, when she gave birth to the presidential couple's first child together, their daughter Giulia.

The Sarkozy camp seemed set on keeping her in the background while they worked on helping the candidate shake off his flashy image.